Book Notes: Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden

This is the most often performed Latin American play but it’s not great. Dorfman writes about the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile but he’s not very talented and ends up creating little more than violence porn.

Of course, once a writer offers descriptions of torture and rape, he’s got access to your neural circuits that start firing up like crazy. People who aren’t sociopaths don’t react calmly to that kind of thing. Talk enough about rape, give just enough salacious details, cover it all up with a preachy moral message – and you can sell anything.

This doesn’t mean you can’t create works of art about dictatorships. Castellanos Moya does it. But you can see the difference at once. In Castellanos Moya, there is a story, there are characters and not cardboard cutouts.

The corny tricks of making the audience look in a mirror to contemplate their complicity with the blah blah or putting actors in the audience were cute in the 1930s. But sixty years later they are downright embarrassing.

I don’t want to rag on Dorfman who is a descendant of Ukrainan Jews and, I’m sure, a worthy individual. But this play. . . Why are things so bad with theater in Latin America?

I read that Glenn Close played the leading part in this play. I wonder if she, at least, could do something to save it. I saw 3 Spanish-language performances of the play online, and they are all horrid.

There’s a difference between “an important topic” and “a work of art.” Many people don’t get that.

6 thoughts on “Book Notes: Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden

  1. How is it that whenever I go to bed at five am ET, you always have a new post up? Do you schedule them or do you wake up at four am your time?


    1. I schedule them strategically. I’m a late sleeper, and if I don’t put up any early morning posts, people leave for the whole day. So I schedule a post to appear between 3 and 4 am every day. And it always ends up being the only post with any readership.


  2. I’m not a connoisseur of theatre, only recently got interested in it, but there’s lots more theatre in Latin America. Is this the most staged Lat Am play NOW? In Lat Am, too? I haven’t seen it in listings there since the 90s, but I don’t look systematically. I still teach it in intermediate courses, though, because the students like it and there’s a lot you can do, it’s easy to connect the dots and it generates interesting discussions regardless of its own mechanical-ness. The two texts on this era I truly can’t stand for bad art are La casa de los espíritus and La historia oficial — although precisely for the advantages of its mechanical-ness I do sometimes still refer to or discuss La historia oficial, but I’m not willing to spend time screening it or make it a central text in a course.


    1. God, I detest La casa de los espíritus abd La historia oficial. I don’t know if it’s still done but when I was in college, you couldn’t avoid getting assigned / shown both in at least three different courses.


      1. This was when I was a new assistant professor. La historia oficial, OK, you could assign it as a movie to see on the weekend, and it is a fact that it had an impact when it first came out because of the situation. I saw it in the Cinearte Paulista, corner of Paulista and Consolação, SP, SP, BR and I had just come back from Arg. and they had just for the first time publicly admitted some of the torture, and we couldn’t believe we were in a major public cine even talking about this topic without having police come down. So, OK. But the Allende thing is over 300 pages of soap, not something you can just assign without having it overtake other things.


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